The number of king salmon predicted to return to the Kuskokwim River this year has taken a dramatic drop. Two tribal groups and one private citizen don’t think the state is doing enough to conserve the kings, and they’ve each submitted paperwork requesting that federal managers immediately take over the lower river to restrict fishing.
The Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission is meeting with federal managers today, Tuesday, at 1 p.m. to urge them to take action, and the clock is ticking. Tomorrow, Wednesday, marks the state’s first scheduled gillnet opening of the season for the Kuskokwim. The Commission wants the feds to assert control of the federal waters of the lower Kuskokwim River before any king salmon can be harvested.
The run is predicted to be smaller than initially announced and the Commission, which represents the Kuskokwim’s 33 tribes, sees no choice but to accept a harsh reality.
Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Executive Director Mary Peltola sent a letter on May 21 with the tribes’ request to Ken Stahlnecker, Refuge Manager for the the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. In it she writes, “It is clear that subsistence needs will not be met.”
The state estimates that 116,000 to 150,000 kings will return this year, and the Commission wants three-quarters of those to reach their spawning grounds. Those numbers leave only 25,000 kings for subsistence harvest on the high end, and only 6,000 kings on the low end. That’s extremely small; the average Kuskokwim harvest of kings is 84,000.
Nick Kameroff of Aniak chairs the Commission. During a Commission teleconference last week, he told Kuskokwim residents to “buckle up everybody.”
“We have to stay [in] conservative mode," Kameroff said. "I know it’s hard on everybody. However, it’s very important that we keep in mind that we are trying to rebuild the stocks.”
Kameroff also asked people to remember that an abundance of chum and red salmon are predicted for the river.
The state’s 12-hour gillnet opening scheduled for Wednesday, and another next week, are meant to target the smaller whitefish, not salmon. Fishermen are restricted to 4-inch mesh, but any kings incidentally caught can be kept and any state resident can participate, though there’s no indication that people living outside the Kuskokwim are joining. During the same teleconference, Executive Director Mary Peltola spoke against the openings.
“We have seen in the past the misuse of the 4-inch whitefish nets," Peltola said. "So if we really are for conservation, even the handful that are incidentally caught in the 4-inch gear should be a concern.”
The Commission hopes that the feds will take over the lower river today and keep gillnets out of the water during the early part of the run.
Two more requests have been submitted that ask the feds to take over the Lower Kuskokwim for conservation reasons. One is from the Native Village of Akiak, and the other from a private citizen, LaMont Albertson. He’s a former, longtime Aniak and Bethel resident and is heavily involved in Kuskokwim fisheries, including co-chairing the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, advising the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and working for the Bering Sea Fishermen's Assocaition.